30 Years of Great Lakes Policy

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UMD alumnus Adolph Ojard University of Minnesota Duluth

Adolph Ojard Leaves a Lasting Legacy

Ojard University of Minnesota Duluth
Adolph Ojard (photo by Steve Kuchera, Duluth News Tribune)
Adolph Ojard, '71, is retiring as Duluth Seaway Port Authority executive director in fall 2013. The occasion calls for his stories to be told about the shipping industry and life on the Great Lakes. Beginning as a dock worker while he was in college at UMD, he has taken on increasingly complex positions, first as president of the dock workers union at age 22, then executive positions on the Great Lakes and the Gulf of Mexico, arriving back at the Duluth Seaway Port Authority in 2003.

Over his career, Ojard’s seen decades of changes, from the coal-fired steamer ships built in the 1930s to the planning of a new breed of fuel-efficient cargo ships coming out of Canada. “There is no better example of the globalization of the world’s economy than in cargo ships,” Ojard said. “Because the Duluth Port can move large cargo out without traveling through population centers, where there are road and bridge height restrictions, we see ships from hundreds of countries around the world.”

The Duluth Port has the best clearance for rail and that means they see some huge cargo. Ojard said the most cargo the port has ever handled at one time came from a ship that started in Dubai by loading a pressure reactor vessel bound for the oil fields in Canada. It then traveled to Kobe, Japan; Port Kelang, Malaysia; Mumbai, India; through the Suez Canal; to the east and west coast of Italy; and on through the Straights of Gibraltar to Rotterdam, Netherlands; and finally to Duluth through the St. Lawrence Seaway. Sixty-one rails cars were loaded with the cargo from this one ship, setting a port record. All were bound for Canada. “The engineering and logistics needed to plan a voyage like that is tremendously sophisticated,” Ojard said. “Engineers plan a rail car load that can travel through the Crookston Bridge with only a three-fourths inch clearance on either side.”

There is one story that is hard for Ojard to tell. It was when he and his dad, Adolph Ojard Sr., the captain of the Edna G. tugboat in Two Harbors, sat at the kitchen table with Captain Bernie Cooper. “It was November 1975 and Bernie had just docked the Arthur M. Anderson in Two Harbors. Dad picked up Bernie and brought him to the house in Knife River. When I got off work (as supervisor of the Two Harbors ore docks) I joined them.” The Edmund Fitzgerald ore boat was lost at sea just five days earlier and Captain Cooper had been in radio contact with its captain and had followed the ship through severe weather. “Bernie was using knives and forks laid out on the table to show Dad just how it happened,” Ojard said. “No one on the Great Lakes will forget that storm. Bernie told us about three monstrous waves, the "Three Sisters," that washed over the Arthur M. Anderson, completely engulfing the ship." The waves came after a chilling radio transmission from the Edmund Fitzgerald.  “Their fence rail was down, they lost two vents, and they had taken a significant list,” said Ojard. “At the same time the Fitz was hit by the waves, a snow squall stopped radio transmissions and radar. When radar came up again, the image of the Fitz was gone.” Cooper was asked by the Coast Guard to search for survivors. “Bernie hesitated because it would put his crew in danger. He did turn around but all he found was debris and lifeboats; no survivors.”

Ojard earned a bachelor’s degree in literature and history and minored in political history, graduating with honors from the UMD in 1971. “I owe a lot to my education at UMD,” Ojard said. “There is a tremendous value in the liberal arts; skills like critical thinking and communication can take a person anywhere. At UMD, I learned how to break down confusing, complicated concepts and then communicate them. I need to be able to speak to legislators, board members, and colleagues in the industry. They each need an approach they can understand.” Ojard was strong in math and science but he especially enjoyed anthropology and English classes. “Klaus Jankofsky was a mentor to me. I would leave class and show up for work on the docks, reciting Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales to my coworkers. They got a kick out of it too.”
For more than 30 years, Ojard worked with transportation affiliates of the U. S. Steel Corporation where he held executive positions in rail, inland barging, and Great Lakes shipping. He was president of the Warrior Gulf Navigation Co. in Alabama until 1997. From 1997 to 2002, just prior to returning to Duluth, Ojard served as general manager of both the DM&IR Railway and USS Great Lakes Fleet, a regional railroad and a vessel company headquartered in Minnesota.

Ojard also has been actively involved with maritime policy making initiatives at the federal level in his role as president of the American Great Lakes Ports Association and, more recently, as chair of the U.S. Delegation of the American Association of Port Authorities. His work has impacted the harmonizing of ballast water regulations and emission standards plus harbor maintenance tax issues. Ojard also chaired the Great Ships Initiative Advisory Committee, is a member of the U.S. DOT Maritime Transportation System National Advisory Committee and served on the board of the Minnesota Agri-Growth Council.

Ojard’s father was the last master of the Two Harbor legendary steam tug Edna G, which was operated for 95 years, from 1896 to 1981. It is now on permanent display in Two Harbors. Ojard grew up in Knife River, Minnesota, on the North Shore of Lake Superior.  He's the grandson of two Norwegian fishing families, the Ojards and the Torgersens. He fondly remembers commercial fishing on Lake Superior with his father and grandfather during his boyhood.

Hear a WTIP Radio audio clip of Ojard as he remembers fishing on Lake Superior as a child.

Written by Cheryl Reitan, August, 2013

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UMD home page editor, Cheryl Reitan, creitan@d.umn.edu

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